Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

I’m conflicted. I liked a lot of this book – I thought that our narrator’s relationships with her parents, her friend Tracey and employer Aimee were well written. I enjoyed their characters as well – I felt like I got to know Tracey and Aimee really well over the course of the book. I really enjoyed the split locations between West Africa, London and New York, and I thought the writing itself was impressive. The problem? The book needed a better editor. There are characters that are thrown in for a chapter and then never heard from again, some bizarre events that seem unrealistic based on the story that Smith has laid out for us and a whole lot of waffling. 

Smith is ambitious with Swing Time – she takes on race, gender, voluntourism, celebrity culture, poverty, education and opportunity against a story of two brown girls from the public housing estates in London and their shared love of dance. I wish Smith had narrowed her focus a little and in the process cut out about 100 pages. I felt myself growing impatient at times, wanting to tell Smith to hurry up and get back to the “main point”. Maybe that’s a good sign, in a way, because it means that when the book was good, it was good

Our story takes place over the our narrator’s childhood and well into her thirties. We see her friend Tracey, the girl with the real talent for dance (and for getting into trouble), end up on a West End stage. The dream, right?! Well, not exactly. Tracey faces a lot of hardship throughout the story, which is ultimately further compounded by her toxic attitude and thorny exterior. Our narrator comes from a slightly more stable background than Tracey, and navigates a difficult friendship with her until her university years, after which their interactions become sparse, but no less challenging. 

Here’s the difficult truth: you either know a Tracey, or you are a Tracey. I knew a Tracey, and for many, many years, I thought that she wasn’t such a Tracey, just misunderstood. Smith clearly has known a Tracey or two – you aren’t able to write one so well without having been entangled with one.  

After university, our narrator becomes a personal assistant to celebrity singer Aimee (think: Madonna) for nine years. Through Aimee, our narrator is introduced to the wild world of riches and fame, and remarks that it is her job to make the world easy for Aimee, who throughout the story makes the world increasingly difficult for our narrator. Aimee becomes everyone’s least favourite kind of celebrity: she has way too much money, not enough common sense and a massive white saviour complex.

Overall, I found that I really enjoyed the clearly very skilled writing, the storylines involving Tracey and Aimee, and observations that Smith makes throughout the book. It was also very enjoyable to read the descriptions of the locations of this book – I felt like I was back in London during some chapters. I think that with a great editor and maybe one less theme for Smith to tackle, this book would have been a 5 star recipient. 

Pairs well with: leaving (or entering) a toxic friendship, practicing the dance from the Vogue music video, taking a cheeky smoke break. 

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